Women behind the wheel

KATHMANDU: Male taxi drivers far exceed the number of female taxi drivers in the Capital.

But a couple of women are defying the gender stereotypes — turning their interest in driving into a profession. From those who have just entered into this profession to the woman leading the alliance of taxi drivers, they are making their mark in the maledominated profession, breaking down the social barriers. As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, three such courageous female cabbies in the Valley share what it is like to be one of the few women behind the wheel.

Dedicated professionals

Thirty-seven year old Ishwori Thapa has been driving taxi in the Valley for the last nine years. But she is more than that — Thapa is also the Vice-Chairperson of Valley Taxi Entrepreneurs and Taxi Service Society, an alliance of the Valley’s taxi drivers. And be it leading an organisation or working as a taxi driver, she is happy with what she has been doing.

“I earn as much as Rs 2,500 within a few hours,” says Thapa, calling the profession “like running a store — usually, we earn well but sometimes we run dry”.

And with her earning, she takes care of her only daughter as well as five other children who do not have parent(s). “These children are brought up in a hostel, and I pay for their education and all other expenses,” says Thapa, a philanthropist at heart, who has always wanted to help others. And she says her profession has allowed her to do so.

Like Thapa, there are about 16 female taxi drivers out of 22,000 cabbies in the Valley, according to Valley Taxi Entrepreneurs and Taxi Service Society.

One of those 16 women is 33-year-old Kanchhi Thapa, who drives taxi along with her husband — she drives in the day time while her husband drives at night.

It has been about three years that she is into this profession, and seems quite happy to be a woman behind the wheel.

Meanwhile, 41-year-old Nabina Khadka has many responsibilities — she has a retail store, she is pursuing BA in a college in the Valley and also drives a taxi. She mostly stays in her store in the morning and evening while she drives taxi in the afternoon, but she says she is flexible as per the need. And Khadka says she has been able to juggle all the responsibilities with ease, alongside doing well in her studies.

Defying gender stereotypes

Khadka, who has been driving a taxi since the last three years opted to get into this profession to meet the financial needs of her family. The income from the shop only was not enough to pay the house rent and education fee of her two college-going children.

So, she wanted to drive a taxi like her husband, who is also a taxi driver. Her husband initially was not positive.

“He discouraged me from driving — he didn’t like the idea of both husband and wife being in the same profession. He also used to think staying in a shop would be an ideal work for women than getting behind the wheel.”

But after much convincing, her husband agreed to it and now she has mastered all the roads of the Valley in her taxi.

Yet some passengers doubt “whether I can drop them off to their destination on time or not thinking if a woman is capable of doing so” Khadka shares and adds, “When I take them to their destination safely and on time, they respect and encourage me.”

Ishwori is not new to such a biased opinion, and she experienced it before the beginning of her career as a taxi driver. Sixteen years ago 20-year-old Ishwori got separated from her husband — she took with her then two-year old daughter. To make her ends meet, Ishwori tried her hands at different fields, from running an eatery to a tailoring shop and meat shop, before opting to become a taxi driver.

The idea of driving a taxi emerged nine years ago while looking after her goats grazing in Tinkune ground. “I saw many women learning to drive private cars and felt ‘if those women can drive, why can’t I?’” she recalls and adds, “At the same time I had to make money too and the meat shop was not a good source of income.”

Mustering the courage, she requested one of the trainers there to teach her to drive taxi. The trainer, popular as ‘Mama’, encouraged and supported her to do so and she learnt to drive the taxi in two months. But the same trainer was doubtful of her ability to drive on the road after the training. “He feared I would cause accidents,” says Ishwori who, however, was determined to do her best as “it was needed for the livelihood of my small family — my daughter and I.” She got the licence in her second attempt.

Sadly, Ishwori didn’t get a chance to drive professionally for five years because the taxi owners didn’t trust her for “being a female”.

She says, “On one hand, many taxi owners even today do not believe that women can also drive taxi.” Luckily, after five years, she got to drive the taxi of Jeevan Khadka, on the recommendation of his wife.

Kanchhi is not familiar with such struggles for she has a supportive husband who has been helping her to live her dream of driving a taxi since the very first day. She got passionate about getting behind the wheel after finding Ishwori in the driver’s seat. It was during her trips to Minbhawan from Thimi to buy vegetables for her grocery store, she would often see Ishwori driving the taxi. And she realised that women too are allowed to drive taxi. As such she learnt driving at a driving centre and got licence and started driving.

Now that they have defied gender stereotypes and have made their mark in the male-dominated profession, these women are receiving the respect.

“Even those who used to doubt my ability for being a woman these days praise me for my courage to drive taxi professionally,” shares Ishwori.

Fighting with the odds

All three women share in unison that once they get out on the

roads with their taxis, they have been experiencing some problems, which are no different from those faced by male taxi drivers.

Being deceived by the passengers is a problem, says Ishwori, who has been deceived twice as they escaped without paying the taxi fare.

“And whenever passengers deny paying the fare as shown in the taxi meter and start bargaining, I just let them go and tell them to buy some vegetables for their kitchen from that money,” she shares in a sarcastic tone.

“The unavailability of public toilets and parking spaces in the congested town are some other challenges,” says Khadka, adding, “This is more evident in the present time as the number of vehicles plying on the roads is increasing.

In the past, we could park our taxis along the river corridors while using public toilets. But as we are not allowed to park in such places, we have to travel quite a long distance to answer nature’s call. It is more difficult during our menstruation.”

Unavailability of parking space is taking a toll on their business too as per Kanchhi.

“Because of the shortage of parking space, we need to drive far or return home without any passenger. If we park and wait for passengers, traffic police come and warn us, or make us pay fine. More passengers opting for services like Tootle and Pathao is also affecting our business,” she adds.

In such a condition, they expect the rate of taxi fare to be revised.

Khadka says, “The government has set the rate at Rs 39 per kilometre.

The rate has remained the same since 2013.” But it needs to be revised as the cost of everything has gone up in the market as per Ishwori.

Despite the odds, they have been making a living out of this profession and encourage aspiring women to come up with courage. Khadka shares, “There are many women in the country who are limited to household chores and taxi driving profession can be the good option of earning for them.”

Ishwori adds, “Women can also drive professionally as men. All you need is honesty — whatever profession you are in, you need to be honest.” And she ensures she has maintained that honesty as a taxi driver.